By Trevor Busch
The cost-cutting ripple effects of October’s provincial budget has been impacting school divisions across the province, and locally, the news is just as grim as in other jurisdictions for Holy Spirit Catholic School Division.
The Oct. 24 budget funds enrollment growth for 2019, but freezes K-12 operating spending over the next four years, which could have a corresponding effect on per-student investment if enrollment grows.
“Like any other school division we want to grow. Our rural schools are static for growth, but our urban schools are growing,” said Pat Bremner, Ward 5 trustee with Holy Spirit. “It’s hard enough to manage no funding for growth, but when you’ve already put funding in very crowded positions, in crowded areas, it makes it hard.”
Cuts to various grants and initiatives have had a cumulative effect, and the division’s bottom line will be suffering a seven-figure impact.
“The elimination of class size funding from K to 3, and the CTS (Career and Technology Studies) lost Tier 2 and 3 — the loss of funding for those is around $2 million alone,” continued Bremner, who represents St. Patrick and St. Mary schools in Taber, and St. Michael in Bow Island. “And then the transitional funding that the government has given us doesn’t even cover half of that. So we’re looking at a well over $2 million loss. Going into next year is going to be tricky, we also don’t have classroom improvement funding. The NDP gave us that two consecutive years and it was very welcome, we were able to use it for different resources within the classrooms. And we don’t have that anymore. And the school fee reduction grant is gone.”
Grappling with a changed fiscal reality has been a challenge for the division, and the decision has been made by the board to fund immediate shortfalls with reserves.
“What we have done this year is we’re going to spend about $1.6 million out of our reserves, and that is going to leave us with less than $1 million. So if we have another untoward expense this year, we’re going to be scrambling to find money. But our board — and I’m proud of this, we’re doing the Catholic thing — but we will not interrupt any staffing this school year. We have contracts, we’re going to honour them, and that’s where we’re going to use our reserves to make up the shortfall,” said Bremner.
Bremner is hopeful the division can make ends meet at the conclusion of the 2019-2020 school year without impacting front-line staffing.
“It’s no surprise that our biggest cost — as in any business — is labour. About 80 per cent of our budget is directed towards staffing. So when the time comes after the school year is done for new contracts, we’re hoping that we can cover gaps with attrition.”
With an eye towards cost-cutting, administrative staff have been making the rounds of the division’s schools to initiate the hard process of determining what is vital and what can be eliminated.
“We’ve asked our superintendent, Mr. (Chris) Smeaton, and his deputy, Mr. (Ken) Sampson — who will be taking over at the end of the year — to go to each site and task each principal with what can you do without?” said Bremner. “How can you do things differently? And to do this not with begrudging hearts, but in service to our children. What can we do without so our kids on the frontline will not be affected?”
The school funding formula, planned to be changed in September 2020, has ushered in a degree of uncertainty about next year’s funding support from the province, according to Bremner.
“The government is looking at a new funding model. We went into this academic year blind, making a budget based on some premisses, but we had no idea what the government would or would not be giving, because the budget came down very late in October. Right now, with the revised funding formula, we don’t know what we’re going to get, so we’ll be going in blind again. Whether they unveil some of this as time goes on, I can only hope.”
While teaching positions can often be threatened by provincial cost cutting measures, Bremner was also concerned about the potential impact on the more ancillary staff at Holy Spirit.
“One of my biggest concerns about not budgeting for enrollment growth — and this speaks to all divisions, not just Holy Spirit — kids are presenting with complex learning needs, and they need support. If we’re not funding for each child that comes in, where are they going to get that support? And it’s specialized support. Our relationship with our teachers is pretty good. We’re not happy that the government is not funding for growth. We understand — and support — the need for fiscal restraint. We support it 100 per cent. We all have grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and unborn members of our families — members to be — and we have to keep an eye for them as well. We think in those terms, although we spend today’s dollar on today’s kids. But we think about the legacy that we’re leaving, and we don’t like the idea of our teachers, or our staff — whether they’re EAs, office staff, or caretakers — working in this culture of uncertainty. We can only assure that that this year, things will be as they are.”
Annual infrastructure funding for education is also set to be reduced over the next four years, from $526 million in 2019-2020, to $216 million in 2022-2023. The Ward 5 trustee had one word for this looming prospect.
“Pain,” said Bremner. “In Taber, we are very fortunate because both our schools are relatively modern. Like all schools, there’s constant maintenance required, because if you don’t do preventative and predictive maintenance, you can be in trouble. On infrastructure, we’re just going to have to be more creative and more prayerful people, what else can I say?”